A while back, the Criterion Collection had a sale and I bought a couple DVDs that I’d had my eye on. I’ve already reviewed a few of the movies I picked up, namely The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Beau Travail. But I’d been sitting on the rest for a while now, and it’s been a growing annoyance in the back of my skull. So I’m finishing up this week with a light theme! I’m going to be talking about 2 movies I picked up from the Criterion Collection that are surreal experiences from first-time directors released in 1977, starting with Mr. David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Yup, that very specific description applies to more than one cult classic.
The story of Eraserhead is… um… there? Kind of? The entire thing feels like a nightmare put to film, but there is a bit of a story that connects all the weirdness together. Henry (Jack Nance) is a weirdo living in a gritty town who has bizarre dreams involving characters the movie calls “Lady in the Radiator” and “Man in the Planet.” He has a girlfriend, Mary, who apparently has given birth to… something. A baby? Something. Pressured into marrying Mary, Henry and she take care of–JESUS FUCKING CHRIST, WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?!
Oh wow. Uh… If you’ve heard of the movie but haven’t seen it, odds are it’s because of the infamous “Eraserhead baby.” It’s a… puppet? That may or may not also be an embalmed fetus of some animal? Lynch has refused to speak on it ever, so to this day no one is quite sure what exactly went into to making that… thing. It cries constantly, which drives Mary away and leaves Henry taking care of it alone. Then it gets sick, and holy fuck, I wasn’t sure that thing could get any grosser. More gross? It’s a fucking horror show. After a brief fling with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall and a dream–probably–where Henry’s head falls off and is used to make erasers, Henry decides to cut open the bandages wrapped around his child’s body and see what’s underneath. Pulsating organs, as it turns out, because it apparently doesn’t have a solid body. Henry kills the child/creature, and then… I think he dies? Nothing about this movie makes sense, but I’m fairly certain he dies.
This is not a Fahrenheit 451 situation where people have their ideas of what the story means (like censorship) but the author says otherwise (like how Ray Bradbury disagrees). Eraserhead is clearly about something, but Lynch refuses to explain what that is. His refusal to elaborate on it being his most spiritual movie has turned into a meme that you may have seen. It’s generally agreed that it’s about his fear of becoming a father, which has been confirmed by Jennifer Lynch, David’s daughter. A bit dark, but sure. And the Lady in the Radiator symbolizes… um… a lot of things, if you look on the internet. She stomps on mutated sperm, which could be seen as her being Henry’s desires or a rebuke of traditional masculinity. She sings a hauntingly simple song, “In Heaven,” which could mean she represents death, which is backed up by the film ending with her embracing Henry. But that also could be her representing Henry’s desire to abort his child. Sure, it was already born, but it’s not like the movie cares about things like “what you think about it” and “logic.”
As for the movie itself, it’s enjoyable in a morbid way. I can totally see how this became a cult classic. It seems to be designed to be as painfully awkward as possible, so I kept amusing myself thinking of a mandatory high school assembly where the drama club puts on a performance of it. Would teens taking on all the roles make it more or less uncomfortable? Could go either way! The only thing I know for certain is that the anthesis of this movie–the piece of media that is the polar opposite in just about every way–is the “Every Sperm is Sacred” skit from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Think about it! Think about it. You know I’m right.